The Bluegrass Tao – Part III

Festival Feng Shui
For many bluegrass amateurs, 3 A.M. jamming at a bluegrass festival is the musical acme.  Whether it’s one of the major four-day highlights of the national circuit with 8,000 people in attendance, or a small one-day local affair, bluegrass festivals welcome and encourage amateur music-making, an important distinction between bluegrass (and old time music) festivals and other performing arts festivals.  Indeed, for a plurality of bluegrass festival goers, making music is at least as important as listening to the professional acts.  Festival jamming is thus a defining feature of the Bluegrass Tao.

Although all the guidelines above are applicable to festival jamming, there are a few nuances that arise from the fact that there are two general kinds of festival jammers: those with a home base at the festival, and rovers without a home base.  Home base jammers typically attend festivals with jamming friends (even fellow band members) from home.  They set up elaborate campsites and often include relatively immobile instruments such as a double bass.  Rovers, as one would expect, tend to wander around the camping areas and join various jams over the course of the festival. 

Although the distinction between home base jammers and rovers is not set in stone, it’s worth noting because it drives some festival jamming conventions:
First, rovers who want to join a home base jam should approach and stand a bit apart (even outside the tent) and listen for a song or two before moving closer, thus indicating their interest in playing.  Even if they find the music amenable, rovers should not begin playing unless acknowledged and invited into the circle (or even the perimeter) with a nod or other greeting. 

Second, rovers should not take offense if they are not invited to participate in a home base jam.  Some pre-established groups simply like to play by themselves, or the jam may already have enough banjos, or whatever.  Rovers need to be self-aware, not overly sensitive.

Third, rovers should never lead a song or take a solo break unless they are invited to do so.  The same goes for grabbing a beer or helping one’s self to food.

Fourth, if a rover is leading a song and assigning solos, but doesn’t know everyone’s name or inclination to take a solo, it’s OK for him or her to follow a circular pattern and/or call the name of instruments as a proxy for individuals’ names. 

Fifth, in most cases rovers should politely move on after a while, thanking the home base jammers on the way out.  This keeps everything fresh, and avoids wearing out one’s welcome.

Finally, if a rover joins your home base jam and turns out to be a total drag, the easiest and best way to get him or her to move along is to announce that your group is “taking a break” and just stop playing for a while.  Get something to eat or drink.   The rover will have moved on.

The Jam-Buster
Every jammer comes across the occasional jam-buster, the person who destroys the fun for everyone else. Sometimes it’s the guy who always insists on choosing and singing a song that no one knows, yet never takes the time to explain the chord changes.  Other times it might be a lady who refuses to tune her instrument, or who rudely raises loud objections to other people’s song choices.

Of course, jerks are jerks, whether or not they’re attending a jam.  If you’re lucky, your local jam-buster isn’t actively mean or rude, but simply lacks self-awareness.   The obvious solution is to make him or her aware that their behavior is harmful.  The problem, however, is that jams are by definition “democratic” and, in the absence of a clear authority structure, taking the initiative to intervene can be extremely awkward. It’s even worse if the jam-buster presumes to take command.

One solution is to “take a break” and for someone to have a private conversation with the jam-buster.  If that isn’t possible, another approach is to ask for everyone’s e-mail address, suffer through the rest of the jam as best you can, and then follow up with a polite but private e-mail requesting a behavior modification.  As a practical matter, few jam-busters will show up at the next jam after receiving such an email.  If they do, and still refuse to cooperate, you will have no choice but to ask them to leave.

Find Your Jam
Thanks to the Internet, finding a local bluegrass jam has never been easier.  Here are some websites to consider:

Google – enter “bluegrass jam” and “[your home town]”


Flatpicking Guitar Network – an online community for flatpicking guitarists

Craigslist – search listings in “communities”

Beyond using the Internet, you should also consider:
•    Asking music teachers if they have students who might like to jam, or
•    Attending a bluegrass workshop and music camp in your area (see, for example, Dr Banjo) and then networking among your fellow participants.

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff

Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff is a native of New York City but maintains a home in the Hudson Highlands near West Point. An intermittent guitar player since his teens, he attended one of Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s Jam Camps in 2006 and has enjoyed jamming ever since.

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